Integration of Digital Thinking in Corrections

Experts’ Panel: Digital Transformation

Arun Vanapalli

Across every industry, organizations are positioning themselves to embrace Digital. Some organizations have begun their digital journeys, and have invested in tools and technologies to help them along their paths. Across corrections, many examples of organizations or vendors fall somewhere along the spectrum from “considering to go digital” to “well on their way.” 

The complexity of Digital, however, lies in definition. What does Digital mean? What does Digital mean in corrections? Most specifically, what does Digital mean for you in corrections?  

Starting more broadly with just Digital, whatever your first thought here is, it’s likely correct.

Digital refers to technology. It refers to Cloud. It refers to data. It refers to elements of all three of these answers, such as emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), or Virtual Reality (VR). It can refer to Cloud storage for data, or on-demand Cloud computing. It can even refer to more fundamental dimensions of data, such as information management with respect to generated data. 

Digital is all of the above, and much more. It may be the most important and impactful revolution facing the working world since the internet. Whether we realize it or not, we are all on the path to Digital, as both individuals and organizations, at home and at work. The depth and breadth of what Digital means is constantly evolving, which is what makes grasping the concept of Digital so difficult.  

Similarly, development of a digital strategy has proven to be a task of great difficulty, particularly in corrections.

With all of this in mind, how do we find an accord between the constantly changing idea of Digital, and the relatively static sector that is corrections?

From my perspective, there are four key pillars that must be considered to enable a corrections organization to define their Digital posture and way forward: 

  •     Digital is an ongoing journey 
  •     Enterprise prioritization 
  •     Interoperability vs “Intraoperability” 
  •     Partnership  

Digital is an ongoing journey 

One of the fundamental challenges that we face in corrections with respect to Digital is the “end state.”

 When undergoing a technology implementation, such as an offender management system upgrade or update, a change in electronic health records system, or even a point of sales system in a commissary, there is a beginning, middle, and end. At some point in time during the project lifecycle, the old system is decommissioned, and the new system helps support operations. When undergoing a legislative change, policies, practices, and processes are assessed and re-designed to meet new requirements.  

While the steps to meeting the legislative change may be complex, the end state is defined, so that practitioners know when they have met the letter of the law. Digital, however, does not come with such clear distinctions. 

Ralph Waldo Emmerson once famously said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” It’s unlikely he was talking about the impact of Digital on business, but the quote is extremely appropriate in this context. In corrections, practitioners and leaders are required to think practically. The safety of law-abiding citizens, and the success of rehabilitation programming and reintroduction into society of incarcerated people depends on it. As such, the sector is conditioned to look for solutions that are clearly defined, that enable them to see appreciable gains or efficiencies in the way they operate, without necessarily upsetting or changing business processes. However, success in Digital requires this instinct to be tempered. 

The most fundamental error that can be made when embarking on the digital journey is to assume that the journey ends. To be successful in any digital endeavour, corrections practitioners must recognize that Digital is ongoing.

Technology, a driver of Digital, is always evolving, changing, and advancing. As such, Digital opportunities are always emerging. There is no real end in sight to the possibilities that Digital can introduce to a business, including corrections. 

Enterprise prioritization 

Depending on one’s perspective, the notion of endless possibility could be either exciting or terrifying.

The best way to ensure one is feeling the former rather than the latter is through strong enterprise vision. For the corrections practitioner, this means a focus on the desired outcomes of operations.

Every corrections organization has a set of goals that they are striving to achieve. Oftentimes, these goals are aspirational. They may also be ongoing, such as reduction in recidivism. To advance against these goals, leaders must determine which desired outcomes align to these goals, what interdependencies exist, and then create a subset of activities that can lead to achieving said outcomes.

Layering digital thinking on top of this vision is how a more effective digital approach can begin to take shape. 

By taking an outcome focused view, an organization can begin to understand the interdependencies that exist between the activities required to deliver the outcomes. Applying Digital to these outcomes enables an organization to prioritize digital investment based on their most pressing needs. In turn, this allows for the organization to narrow the possibilities of digital implementation so that focus remains on driving outcomes.  

By “simplifying” how Digital is considered in this manner, understanding how Digital can augment, improve, change or even eliminate a function or area of correctional operations becomes more manageable.

The nuances that require investigation when making decisions in this scenario fall into more traditional areas, primarily maintaining an enterprise view, using the enterprise view to prioritize, and considering interoperability.

Interoperability vs “Intraoperability” 

Consider the functions that comprise of the operations of corrections as “modules.” For example, health services, education, rehabilitation programming, and human resources may all be considered modules of the larger enterprise that enable the business of corrections.

When considering desired outcomes and the activities required to deliver these outcomes, it’s often elements of these modules, or entire modules, that are impacted by the strategies and plans that are developed to achieve said outcomes.  

Additionally, when investigating and prioritizing digital opportunities, it is these modules where Digital can revolutionize operations. However, revolution across a single module may negatively impact other modules in the operation. As such, interoperability and enterprise prioritization are critical nuances to understand on the digital journey. 

Interoperability, loosely defined, is the ability for different systems to access, exchange, integrate, and leverage data in tandem across boundaries.

An example in corrections would be data generated for a health services module. Characteristics of an incarcerated person that align to the health services module could be leveraged in the wider Offender Management System to inform decision making. If the incarcerated person is differently abled, physical limitations in the medical record may help support bed placement. Or allergies listed in the same medical record could inform menu selections for food services. As such, when targeting investment for Digital, interoperability must be considered to ensure that a certain level of “future proofing” exists so that when other digital investment occurs, modules are able to connect without the need for significant configuration or redevelopment.  

With this said, I would propose that in corrections we have the opportunity to re-label these internal integration opportunities. I suggest that we consider the connections made between modules to be “intraoperability” opportunities.  

The degree of efficiency and effectiveness of operations achieved through a digital approach is dependent on modules interacting seamlessly. The better a corrections organization can plan for enterprise-level intraoperability and integration, the better prepared they will be to realize downstream value generation and cost savings thanks to reductions in the need for customization and redevelopment.  

This begs the question, what does interoperability mean for corrections? The interoperability opportunity is broader and exists across the criminal justice continuum. Policing, courts, corrections, and probation often rely on data generated by each other.

Due to the number of exchanges that need to occur for information to be passed from one party to another in the current state, there is significant risk of delay, duplication, or error. To truly achieve interoperability, corrections must find a way to connect with its compatriots in criminal justice.  

Partnership 

Creating interoperability across the criminal justice continuum is no small task, which is why the only way to achieve it is through partnership.

For public sector entities organized under the broader umbrella of Public Safety, Digital should be viewed as the imperative that can drive collaboration and cooperation between the organizations that comprise the criminal justice continuum. In turn, Digital is also the perfect opportunity to open the door to partnership with vendors and researchers.  

Strong relationships with vendors can create a two-way street that can positively influence the direction of the corrections sector. For practitioners, it is critical to engage vendors that can provide insight and guidance around how to best support Digital.

Vendors can share knowledge on the available tools and technologies in the market, creative and cost-effective ways to implement them, and understanding of cross-industry best practices to ensure stability and continuity during the periods of change that Digital will inevitably introduce.  

In turn, strong engagement with practitioners can help vendors understand the unique needs of corrections. Practitioners have the opportunity to help influence the market, to ensure that vendors are able to come to the table with the solutions that meet the practical and functional requirements for the critical role that corrections plays in society.

Research can help both practitioners and vendors understand what the future of corrections looks like. Through rigorous analysis of the current state, and evidence-driven theories about how to adjust practices to better service incarcerated people and citizens, research can aid both practitioners and vendors in making better decisions across policy, technology, and practice.  

Returning to our key questions – What is Digital? Digital is a mindset that enables improved business processes. What does Digital mean in corrections?

It means strategic investment in priority- and outcome-driven opportunities, with an eye to ensuring enterprise operability. What does Digital mean for you in corrections? Digital is providing all stakeholders in the corrections sector with the opportunity to drive better outcomes through an unexpected concept: community. If we can work together, we can meet our digital ambitions with success. 

Arun Vanapalli is Accenture’s North American Corrections lead. He has extensive experience with regards to IT service delivery, change management, IT transformation, and organizational strategy in both public and private sectors. Arun has developed organizational and technology strategies for corrections organizations, and is actively engaged with corrections practitioners around the world. He is passionate about transforming public safety to create better outcomes for all stakeholders, with a focus on understanding societal and technological trends to optimize organizational change. 

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